U.S Prison Inmate Population Grows at Slowest Rate since 1972

By Genaro C. Armas
APRIL 11, 2002

WASHINGTON – The number of people in prison gew last year at the slowest rate in three decades, the Justice Department reported Wednesday.

The total population in all prisons and jails rose a bit more than 1%, nearing 2 million, according to the annual report.

As of June 20, 2001, one of every 145 U.S residents was behind bars (0.006897% of the total population, emphasis ours).

Tougher anti–crime policies, more facilities and longer sentences are the reasons cited for the decades–long increase in the prison population. Most of the growth from 2000 to 2001 came in federal prisons.

“It appears the state prison population has reached some stability,” said Allen Beck, a statistician with the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Crime rates are down and parole violation have stabilized, while state legislatures in recent years have not enacted the kind of sweeping sentencing reforms passed in the early 1990s.

Beck said the federal system could continue to grow at its current pace as federal trial court caseloads swell with drug, immigration and weapons prosecutions.

The trend “depends on federal law enforcement and prosecutorial discretion,” he said.

Overall, 1,965,495 people were in custody in federal and state prisons and local jails in June 2001, a 1.6% increase from the previous year. The population U.S. and state prisons combined rose by 1.1%, the slowest annual growth since 1972, when there was a 1% decline.

The bulk of the prison population is at the state level, which rose by 0.4%. The number of federal prisoners rose by 7.2%.

Prisons usually hold convicted criminals sentenced to terms longer than one year. Jails generally keep inmates awaiting trial or serving shorter sentences.

Long–standing racial and ethnic disparities remained, particularly among younger African–American men. For instance, 13.4% of African–American men ages 25 to 29 were in prison or jail, compared with 4.1% of Hispanic men and 1.8% of white men.

Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that promotes alternatives to incarceration, said states were doing a better job.

“Increasingly, policy–makers recognize that prisons are expensive,” Mauer said about the trend on the state level.

He suggested that the atmosphere of tightening budgets may have legislators rethinking sentencing policies to avoid building new prisons (which hasn’t happened here in California, emphasis ours).